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One Mighty Pan

June 11, 2009

I am not a very manly man.  I’m not.
Really, Mom.  It’s true.

And I’m ok with that.

I never really got into watching sports.  Certainly I have never been good at team sports.  Cars never interested me.  I like women, but I never chased them around.  Beer is fine, but so is wine.  And with grilled sausages on a hot summers day, nothing is better than a dry Bandol rosé.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy certain manly things.  In the kitchen, my favorite piece of cookware is my cast iron skillet.  And there is nothing feminine about cast iron.

Cast iron cookware is heavy.  Larger sizes can almost be unwieldy.
Cast iron cookware gets insanely hot.  It’s not for those with delicate skin.
Cast iron cookware never gets washed.  No soap shall ever touch it.

A long time ago, a graduate student I knew was renting a room from an older couple in Berkeley.  The couple was gone for the weekend, and she invited a bunch of people to come over and cook dinner.  In their kitchen I saw one of the most inspiring sights of my life.  That’s right.  Their thirty-year-old cast iron skillet.

Oh my.  It was a thing of beauty.  It was a rich lustrous black and satiny smooth to the touch.  I determined at that moment that this would be a pan I would aspire to recreate in my lifetime.

So I went out and bought my own cast iron skillets.  I had been using Raf’s a little bit, but he was very protective of them, and for good reason.  What you cook in a cast iron skillet stays with the skillet.  It’s called seasoning.  And it’s what you need to achieve that patina I saw in Berkeley.  You can adequately season a new pan over a weekend.  But to become a cherished piece of cookware, it takes months and months of regular use.  And if anyone uses soap to try and clean your precious, all of the hard work will collapse in seconds.

Buying cast iron cookware is pretty easy.  There are generally not too many choices.  Lodge has been the dominant producer and their products are widely available.  Plus as opposed to some other high-performance cookware, cast iron is incredibly inexpensive.

But when you bring it home, you are starting with an unfinished product.  Even if the label suggests the pan has been pre-seasoned, you will still have a project on your hands.  There may be instructions on how to season your new pan.  I have always ignored those and followed the sage advice from The Cook’s Bible.

After washing with soap and water for its first and only time, dry the pan, and put it on a high heat burner.  Wait about five minutes until the pan is very hot.  Now would be a good time to put on oven mitts.  Pour a couple of tablespoons of canola oil into the hot pan.  There will be smoke.  With progressive wads of paper towels, rub the hot oil into the hot pan until it no longer pools.  Finally, throw the blazing hot and smoking pan into the oven to cool down for about thirty minutes.

Before you start cooking with the pan, you will want to go through this procedure another few times (minus the washing of course).  I did mention it was a good weekend project. And you will be going through this routine a lot because after every use of the pan, you should rinse, dry and season.  The process is a bit awkward at first, but seasoning the pan becomes easier and more routine as you do it more and more.  In our house it now only takes a couple of minutes.

Is it really worth it?

Here’s the thing.  Well-seasoned cast iron is a natural non-stick cooking surface.  That means you do not have to worry about synthetic non-stick coatings flaking off and getting into your food.  I cook eggs and even make omelets in my pan without any problem.

Nothing is better for browning or searing foods that require high heat, especially if you are trying to make a stir-fry.  And it also is excellent at low-heat cooking with even edge-to-edge distribution.

It’s inexpensive, it’s sturdy, and it will last you the rest of your life if you take care of it properly.  It’s extraordinarily versatile.  I use mine almost every day.

Plus you do get the added bonus of getting additional iron in your diet.  No joke.  But who couldn’t use a little more.

It does have its drawbacks.  Unlike stainless steel or anodized aluminum, cast iron is a reactive surface.  Which means you probably want to stay clear of acidic sauces or foods.  Tomatoes do not play nicely with cast iron.  But maybe you won’t notice the slightly off flavor.

If you don’t have one of these in your kitchen, you should.  And hopefully you are not dissuaded by the care and feeding required of the cast iron.  Whatever it demands from you it returns tenfold.

Besides, you know that if you are not going to obsess about seasoning a cast iron skillet, you’ll just find something else to fuss over.  And at least with the pan, you’ll get your new favorite piece of cookware in return.  You just have to be patient.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 11, 2009 12:40 pm

    I do like my cast iron pan, but I don’t think I have the same love for mine as you yours. Ever since I got my All-Clad Copper Core pans, I really stopped going to the cast iron. I think the last time I even used it was to make a pizza on it, upside down in my oven. It has been well seasoned for about 30 years (thanks mom and dad!), but I really just love love love my All-Clad.

  2. Raf permalink
    June 11, 2009 2:10 pm

    You haven’t been keeping up with McGee. Cast iron pans are out…

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/08/dining/08curi.html?scp=1&sq=harold%20mcgee&st=cse

  3. June 11, 2009 5:46 pm

    Cast Iron cookware is great!

  4. phairhead permalink
    June 11, 2009 7:45 pm

    once you go cast iron, you never go back! my boyfriend stole his set from his ex-wife : )

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